Stones, Dragons and Vineyards

I have to begin today with some background in order to help us understand our gospel.  Matthew almost certainly writes to a Jewish Christian audience living in or near Palestine, and that these early Jewish believers were experiencing intense persecution from the Jewish religious authorities.  A number of aspects in the gospel point to this audience, including the focus on the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures—along with a number of symbols and allusions to Jewish history. Jesus can be seen throughout the gospel as partaking in the tradition of Moses, and Jesus’ teachings and miracles keep hearkening back to that leader of the Exodus.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

However, Matthew’s Jesus also often gets very confrontational with the religious leaders, likely because his readers are also experiencing that conflict.  Jesus has been in their sight for some time, and now it’s reaching its climax. It’s the Monday of Holy Week in our reading.  The day before, Jesus rode on that donkey, and was hailed with praises and waving branches.  On this Monday, he comes into the temple and has been asked by whose authority he teaches. The leaders are trying to trap him, of course.  But Jesus is a bit tricksy himself, and asks them an unanswerable question too.  He then tells a parable that those religious types know casts them in a bad light, and they can’t say anything.  Our reading this morning is how Jesus continues speaking to these leaders.

Water in the Desert

Over the course of my sabbatical, I spent 40 nights camping in a tent. While that has a nice Biblical ring to it, I didn’t plan it initially that way and until about two weeks ago thought I’d hit 39. The longest consecutive stretch of sliding into a sleeping bag was 12 days while on our family car camping trip as we made our way up the Rockies with stops at Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier and Banff National Parks. I additionally had a seven day stretch on the hills of Kilimanjaro, and six days in a row while in the vast wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota and Ontario. Out of those 40 nights, most were not in the same location, but rather setting up camp for a day or two and then moving on to a new place.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

Some of the sites were breathtaking, like the one at the Signal Mountain area of the Grand Tetons. We looked out from our tent over Jackson Lake with the entire jagged range of those mountains just beyond. We sat entranced that first day by the immense beauty. But not all was rosy even there as we had not one but two nights of gusty winds that kicked up for an hour or so after bedtime with the stiff breeze coming down hard from the mountains and over the lake. The wind had nothing to stop it before it hit the side of our enormous eight man tent which acted just like a sail. The four of us stood with our backs against the poles, holding hands, trying to not have our tent take flight and waiting for the storm to pass. On other nights at places so remote I could hear only the call of a loon, that plaintive wail it made as it tried to locate other birds nearby. One night I heard the sound of trucks rushing by and then hitting their brakes on the interstate that the campground backed up to.  I never really knew what I would get.

The Fierceness of Nature

The sea was angry that day, my friends. Seriously angry. Waves pounding the rocks at Schoodic Point in Acadia, remnants of Hurricane Jose.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

I—and many others—sat transfixed by the constant crashing of saltwater. Some had even brought beach chairs to enjoy the show, eating peanuts while taking it all in.

Nearing the End

I’m down to just a few more days in my sabbatical. I saw a few parishioners around town and in the parking lot last week as I was home with my family (who has returned to full school year mode). This week I’m tenting at a campsite near Acadia National Park, soaking in a last few days of the outdoors at a time when I’m usually in full getting things done mode at our parish with a return to an active schedule.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

There’s a light rain today; I’m sitting under a tarp at the picnic table. I’ve been reading a book this morning on wilderness spirituality as a drank my coffee.

Time Alone in the Wilderness

Last week I paddled with two other men in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in Minnesota and Canada. I traveled with Renewal in the Wilderness—an organization that hopes to bring refreshment to those in helping professions like clergy, social workers and teachers by having them get out into the wilderness. Over the course of seven days we canoed in a dozen different lakes with ten portages from about 100 feet to three quarters of a mile. All told we traveled thirty miles.

Watching the moonrise from our campsite. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

I’ve never been in a place like the BWCA before. After the first two lakes, no motor boats were allowed. Additionally, local aircraft cannot fly over the designated wilderness area. Campsites dot the lakes and are limited to a single group. The week after Labor Day brings fewer people—and fewer mosquitoes—along with the beginnings of a Fall chill. While we saw other paddlers from time to time, we generally were alone breathing in the pine scented air and listening to the slight wish of the paddles.

The Desert’s Great Gift

The great gift of deserted country to us is solitude, the chance to be alone before God. This gift may also be the desert’s greatest terror, however….  We are left by ourselves, and suddenly we are faced with the question of what that self really is…. The desert lacks everything except the opportunity to know God.” — David Resenberger

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

Descents

Final Days on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Every hiker knows that once you reach the summit you’re only halfway. Unless there’s a gondola waiting for you at the top—anathema to peak baggers—you’ve got to hike back down. And often that hike is harder than the one that got you to the top.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

After reaching the very top of Africa, we took about 35 minutes to soak it all in. The weather was spectacular, so we took pictures and cherished the view. But you don’t hang around too long at 19,000 feet. The lack of oxygen starts getting to you. So down we went.

On Top of Africa

Day 7 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

We made it!

Our group and guides at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Phil LaBelle, 2017

On August 14, 2017 at 11:45am Noah and I and our entire team reach Uhuru Peak at 19, 340 feet. We began with a 2am wake up call, breakfast and preparing to leave. Zippers on the tent had frozen overnight in the cold and previous day’s rain. But the skies were now clear and the temps were chilly. Just before we were set to depart, Noah began overheating. He’d put on a number of layers including my puffy coat to fight the cold, and as we got outside his body just started getting too warm.

Getting to Base Camp

Day 6 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

And now we are five.

Near base camp. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

This morning we had a sad departure as both Craig and Barry had to head down the mountain for medical attention. Both had been experiencing the effects of altitude sickness over the last couple of days and especially last night and this morning. One of the reasons we all chose Tusker was for their focus on safety. Unfortunately it meant saying goodbye to two wonderful men at least for now. (We hope to see them when our group descends in a couple days and get back to our hotel.)

Walls, Perseverance and Barry

Day 5 on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Today we conquered the Barranco Wall. It looms large on most Kili hikes as it stands 850 feet above Barranco Camp, and it’s the first thing you do after breakfast and heading out. It’s primarily a scramble, working your way over rocks and boulders via a number of switchbacks. You use hands and feet to pull yourself up at some points and slowly make your way to the top. We go slowly—”Pole! Pole!” in Swahili—and it’s great preparation for the pace to the summit.

Noah, Barry and I at Karanga Camp with the Kili summit in the background. Phil LaBelle, 2017.

While Noah and I had a blast—it reminded us of the Beehive Trail in Acadia—others not so much. Especially Barry.